Sevilla's upgraded defense key to Champions League success
ABS-CBN Sports on Feb 22, 2017 11:23 AM
FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2017 file photo, Sevilla's players celebrate after winning their La Liga soccer match against Real Madrid at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium, in Seville, Spain. Sevilla's much-improved defense could be key in its attempt to finally succeed in the Champions League with the Spanish club to take an important step toward establishing itself as a top contender in European football. Sevilla hosts Leicester in the first leg of the Round of 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday, Feb. 22. (AP Photo/Angel Fernandez, File)
TALES AZZONI, AP Sports Writer
MADRID (AP) — Sevilla's much-improved defense will be vital in its attempt to finally succeed in the Champions League.
The team coached by Jorge Sampaoli has displayed the offensive prowess already expected from his squads, but it's also starting to show a more balanced setup that will help the Spanish club to take steps toward becoming a top contender in European football.
On a run of three straight games without conceding a goal, Sevilla hosts Leicester in the first leg of the round of 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday.
Sevilla has won the Europa League the last three seasons, and now it is trying to make it past the last 16 in the Champions League for the first time in nearly 60 years.
"We'll give our lives on Wednesday," Sampaoli said.
"It's a decisive match in the history of the club. We can only think about this match, about playing a very high-quality game and earning an advantage going into the return match (on March 14)."
Sevilla has kept a clean sheet in five of its last 10 games in the Spanish league, outscoring opponents 22-10.
In the 13 league games before then, it scored 24 times but conceded 18 goals. It had been more than a year since Sevilla went three consecutive games without being scored on.
It should help that Sevilla faces a Leicester that is struggling following its surprise English Premier League title last season, and has failed to score in four of its last five games, including a humiliating elimination to third-tier Millwall in the FA Cup on Saturday. However, Leicester has saved almost all of its best performances this season for the Champions League.
After Sampaoli took his time to get the team to play the way he wants offensively, he has put more focus on creating consistency on defense and it's paying off.
The recent improvement in the defense has coincided with the addition of 21-year-old defender Clement Lenglet to the starting lineup. He arrived from Nancy in January and entered the team after regular starter Nicolas Pareja was red-carded two minutes into a 3-1 loss at Espanyol last month.
Lengelt has started every match since then, and the team has yet to concede a goal with him on the field.
"This is the first time that I'm in a team that is playing in the Champions League," said Lenglet, a member of France's youth squads. "This is all new for me, but I'm excited. This is a very important match for the club."
Countryman Adil Rami is expected to be in the middle of the defense on Wednesday, although there is still a chance that Pareja will make it back to the team. He had been nursing a muscle injury following the red card against Espanyol.
Right back Gabriel Mercado is suspended, and Mariano is likely to play on the flank. Sergio Escudero will be on the left side, and Steven N'Zonzi will be the midfielder protecting the defense.
The last time Sevilla passed the last 16 was in 1957-58, when it was the European Cup. It was eliminated by Real Madrid in the quarterfinals that season.
Since then, Sevilla has fallen in the last 16 to Fenerbahce in 2008 and to CSKA Moscow in 2010.
Sevilla is third in the Spanish league and is contending for the title for the first time in years.
"We need to give our lives to make it among the best teams in the world," Sampaoli repeated. "It's the priority."
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni